Better Together-Style Merger In Indianapolis Created Winners And Losers | St. Louis Public Radio

Better Together-Style Merger In Indianapolis Created Winners And Losers

Apr 25, 2019

Backers of the ambitious plan to merge governments in St. Louis and St. Louis County have pointed to the success of Indianapolis, which completed its own merger 50 years ago. Since then, Indianapolis has been a Midwest success story, with a gleaming downtown, a business boom and steady regional population growth.

But the success of Indiana's capital was made possible by political maneuvers that allowed Republicans to gain the upper hand in Unigov, Indianapolis' version of merged government. Critics say the city's success largely came at the expense of black residents and Democratic voters.

“I think if Unigov wouldn’t have happened, our neighborhoods wouldn’t be as neglected as they are,” said state Rep. John Bartlett, a Democrat from Indianapolis. “We’re bringing hotels downtown, but we’re neglecting our city streets.”

A Means To An End

Before the state legislature created Unigov, the city was lagging, said John Krauss, who worked for two of the post-Unigov mayors and, starting in 1973, was the executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, a driving force behind the merger. Former Mayor Bill Hudnut famously said one could shoot a cannon through the middle of downtown after 5 p.m. and not hit a soul.

“We were ‘Indianoplace,’ a mile beyond where you wanted to go,” Krauss said. City leaders “saw Unigov as a means to an end, and the end was transformation of the city; a better city.”

In the 1960s, city leaders concluded the city needed a shot of adrenaline. Indianapolis residents had started to move out of the city’s center and into surrounding Marion County. The city was losing population. Politicians, lawyers and businesspeople started to float the idea of a consolidated government.

Merged government was made possible when Republicans won control of both chambers of the Indiana Legislature, the governorship, the Indianapolis mayor’s office and the county council in the 1968 elections. Republican Mayor Richard Lugar, who later became a U.S. Senator, helped bring the consolidation bill to the statehouse, where it was approved without a public referendum.

Before Unigov, the surrounding Marion County was overwhelmingly white and Republican, while the city was represented by Democrats. Democrats were even discussing electing a black mayor. But in an instant, Unigov created a Republican dynasty that lasted for the next three decades — the leadership that revitalized the downtown and crafted the city’s modern identity.

Evening exercisers walk along Indianapolis' Central Canal.
Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

The mayors had a grand plan to make Indianapolis the amateur sports capital of the country.

The Republican leadership identified downtown’s Mile Square as ground zero for the city’s transformation. Over the next three decades, they lured the Pan-American games, USA Gymnastics and the NCAA’s headquarters to Indiana. They capitalized on the city’s central location and built an enormous convention center downtown with big hotels and a mall to support it. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company stayed put in Indianapolis, as did Rolls-Royce, which manufactures jet engines for the defense industry and private companies. Condos and restaurants now line the city’s canal.

Winners And Losers

But for many, that growth came at a cost.

“They were able to bring in these outside voices, which would dilute the African American vote,” Rep. Bartlett said of the Unigov merger.

Bartlett, a member of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, represents House District 95 on the north east side of Indianapolis, a district that is more than 50 percent African American.

He said other parts of the city haven’t shared in downtown’s success.

“We’ve got the convention center, we’ve got the high-rise hotels,” Bartlett said. “But when you go to the neighborhoods and drive over the streets, it speaks for itself.”

Bartlett points to the deteriorating streets and the hollowed-out neighborhoods on the east side where many of the city’s murders happen. Grocery stores, drugstores and banks have left, and payday loan centers and convenience stores have moved in.

If development had been spread beyond the city’s center, those neighborhoods wouldn’t be in such terrible shape, he said. More balanced representation in the city’s government would have drawn more attention to city’s needs beyond Mile Square.

“We’re not paying attention to our neighborhoods with Unigov; we’re paying attention to our downtown,” he said.

'Blessed' With Leadership

Despite its name, Unigov was far from a complete city-county consolidation, said William Blomquist, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. It left an old patchwork of taxing districts largely intact. It didn’t consolidate police or fire departments, and it left out the region’s schools. Unigov eventually consolidated city and county police departments.

One of the greatest misconceptions about Unigov was that it made the city’s revitalization possible through saving the city more money or increasing its tax base. Blomquist said.

“I think there’s a connection between revitalization and Unigov, but it isn’t always for the reasons people say,” he said.

Merging city and county government in Indianapolis did not necessarily save the city money or cut expenses, he said. But allowing Republicans to consolidate power was consequential. The long-term authority allowed Republican politicians the ability to see long-term projects and the public-private partnerships Indiana became known for through.

“The Democratic party was effectively wiped out for a generation,” Blomquist said.

Since Unigov was put into place in 1970, Indianapolis has built a reputation as a city that's bucked rust-belt stereotypes. Clockwise from top: The NCAA's headquarters, which moved to the city in 1999; Firefighters at the annual Fire Department Instructor's Conference at the Indiana Convention Center; Downtown's Monument Circle, A family relaxes at White River State Park.
Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

It’s not clear how much of Indianapolis’ success can be traced to the merger and how much can be attributed to the talent of the two mayors the city elected after Unigov was put in place. Hoosiers largely regard Lugar and Hudnut, who served four terms, as enormously successful politicians and visionaries.

“We were blessed with very foresighted and public-spirited leadership in the business community and in the Republican Party at the time, and they accomplished a lot with the unilateral control as a consequence of Unigov,” Blomquist said.

A Product Worth Selling

Krauss, who also served as deputy mayor under Hudnut, said the development downtown served a greater purpose, which was the growth of the region as a whole.

“When you’re selling something, you’ve got to have a product that’s understandable,” he said. “There was not a ‘there’ there, and Hudnut, for one, said you can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

Krauss said Lugar, a former businessman, saw the city as a company and a product.

“We had to get ourselves in a competitive nature,” Krauss said. “Unigov did that, because it allowed us to elect one chief executive officer, the CEO.”

But an enduring question for Indianapolis is whether those economic gains brought by the merger were worth it. Some, like Krauss, look at Unigov and see an unrivaled success. But others, like Bartlett, see neglect.

“All of us are citizens; all of us pay taxes,” Bartlett said. “I think our city has to rise together.”

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